Ljudmila Petrushevskaja: Towards a Russian Postmodernist Prose

Matthew Rosenstein, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

In her article on Viktor Pelevin and Russian postmodernism, Sally Dalton-Brown refers several times in passing to Ljudmila Petrushevskaja as a postmodernist author. Another critic, Edith Clowes, discusses the possibility of reading Petrushevskaja's "Novye Robinzony (Xronika konca XX veka)" as a postmodernist work, inquiring whether "postcommunism" and "postmodernism" can refer to the same phenomenon. These suggestions of ways to approach Petrushevskaja's oeuvre raises the question: Is she really a postmodernist author, and how do her works display this postmodernism? In order to answer this question, however, others must be confronted first: Does the fact that she writes today alone make her postmodernist, or are other factors besides chronological ones involved? How does one define postmodernism? What is the nature of postmodernism in Russian society and culture?

In considering these problems, I select two definitions of "postmodernism" and apply them to Russian literature in general and, subsequently, to Petrushevskaja's works. In his interpretation of the term postmodernism, Brian McHale focuses on its differences with modernism, identifying technical practices and themes commonly encountered within both categories. He concludes that the primacy in postmodernism of ontological concerns--those having to do with modes of existence-- distinguishes it from modernism, which emphasizes epistemological concerns--those involving the sources, nature, and limits of knowledge. This framework serves as a useful tool in recognizing postmodernist tendencies across national boundaries and from one author to the next. Jean-Francois Lyotard, however, understands postmodernism as a process in which the author treats art as a language game without preestablished rules, which must in turn be formulated during the course of writing. Such a definition can be applied literally to the situation Russian writers faced with the relaxation of Socialist Realism's restrictions signalled by glasnost' and the fall of the Soviet Union.

Petrushevskaja's writing has evolved over the course of three decades: works penned between about the late 1960s to the mid-1980s tend towards modernist epistemological concerns (e.g. "Svoi krug" [1979]); her later prose, from the mid-1980s to the present, seems to be moving towards postmodernist ontological concerns (e.g. the prose cycle V sadax drugix vozmozhnostej [1989]). Furthermore, Petrushevskaja appears increasingly to treat literature as a game, with works such as the series Dikie zhivotnye skazki (begun in 1993) displaying a postmodernist irreverent humor.